By Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune, texastribune.org
BELTON – The killer of a small-town Texas police chief escaped the death penalty on Wednesday after a jury could not reach agreement on his punishment.
David Risner, a 59-year-old former police officer, was automatically sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He was convicted last Monday in the 2014 shooting death of Little River-Academy Police Chief Lee Dixon.
After hearing testimony for five days in the sentencing phase of Risner’s trial, a Bell County jury deliberated for more than four hours before announcing it could not agree to sentence Risner to death.
“He’s going to die in prison; we’re going to take that home,” Bell County Assistant District Attorney Nelson Barnes said after the sentencing. “We only hope he doesn’t hurt someone in prison.”
Almost two years ago, on June 19, 2014, Dixon arrived at Risner’s house a little after 5 p.m. to investigate a complaint. The two talked for a few minutes, but when Dixon went to cite Risner for a class C misdemeanor, things escalated.
In a dashcam video played during the trial’s closing arguments, the courtroom heard Dixon call out to Risner in an increasingly frantic voice as Risner brought a shotgun to the screen door: “David, show me your hands! Show me them!”
A gunshot sounded, and the shouting ceased. Another shot rang out a few seconds later.
Risner called 911 himself, and a sheriff’s deputy arrived to find Dixon dead on the front porch, according to an arrest affidavit. In court, prosecutors showed an autopsy photo of Dixon, missing almost half of his face.
“What you did because you had a bad day was horrible, horrible,” Lee Dixon’s wife, Mary, said through tears to Risner after the sentencing. “I’m sorry, I just cannot forgive you.”
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Risner served as a law enforcement officer in several departments east of Dallas. He was active in his church and described as a generous man.
Later, he took a contract job in Baghdad during wartime.
“David came back from Iraq a different man, a broken man,” said Donna Risner, his wife. “It was hard for him to concentrate. It was hard for him to sit still. I heard him tell a doctor once it was like there were fire ants in his brain.”
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed that Risner suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury. Multiple explosions rocked the compound where he worked as a security supervisor in Iraq, at least once blowing out the windows of his room.
The defense argued those disorders were the cause of the shooting, and because of that, Risner shouldn’t receive the death penalty.
“He didn’t choose to have these conditions,” said Russ Hunt, Jr., Risner’s attorney. “These conditions are a result of him serving his community.”
Prosecutors said Risner couldn’t use PTSD or a brain injury as an excuse because millions of people are affected by these conditions.
“A shotgun to the face is not the result of PTSD, and it is not the result of a brain injury” Assistant District Attorney Shelley Strimple said. “There’s no excuse for blowing a man’s face off.”
Even with the lesser sentence, Risner will still die in prison, Hunt said. He only asked that his client be spared from execution.
“We’re not asking for a pass,” he said. “David Risner needs to be punished for what he’s done.”
Throughout the day Wednesday, David Risner smiled broadly at his wife and son in the courtroom and wiped tears from his eyes during discussion of his friends and family. When talk focused on Dixon, his face became still and unreadable.
Mary Dixon cried quietly and often. Several times, she left the room in tears.
In a plea to the jury to give her husband a life sentence over death, Donna Risner said, “I want David any way I can have him.”
“How bad do you think Mary Dixon wants Lee?” Barnes asked on cross-examination. In his closing argument, he held Mary’s hand as she sobbed and turned the jury.
“She would walk [Risner] out of this courtroom for just five minutes with Lee,” he said.
In a death penalty sentencing, jurors must unanimously agree that the defendant will pose a future danger to society and that nothing in the defendant’s background or character warrants the lesser sentence.
The defense pointed to a doctor’s evaluation of Risner that said he was low-risk for future danger. Prosecutors said his multiple altercations with Bell County jail staff show that isn’t the case.
Since his arrest almost two years ago, Risner has been in altercations with jail staff over his medication and his laundry, defense attorney Jeff Parker said. He said jail staff was able to handle it easily both times, indicating the prison system would be able to control Risner.
The prosecutors have also pointed to Risner’s several run-ins with law enforcement before Dixon’s death but after Iraq as evidence that he should receive the harshest punishment.
He fired a shot above an officer’s head in one incident and told a dispatcher he would kill the officer if he ever returned to his home. Years later, he became argumentative with an officer after a traffic stop, and officers found a rifle in his trunk.
“He’s no different today than when he killed Lee Dixon,” Barnes said. “He’s still going to hate cops, and he’s still going to hate authority.”
Hunt argued that Risner is only a danger when he has guns: “Is he going to have any guns in prison? No.”
The defense focused on Risner’s behavior before Iraq to justify a life sentence. Hunt pointed to several examples where Risner gave money or even the title to his truck to strangers in need, and the Risners created a Sunday school program at their community church. In 1992, he was named officer of the year for the Van Zandt County Sheriff’s Department.
“Underneath the David Risner that [killed Dixon] … there is a good cop,” Parker said. “You need to judge his whole life, not just the worst part of his life.”
The last death penalty trial in Bell County was in 2007, when Richard Tabler was sent to death row, Barnes said. There have been three death sentences in Texas this year.
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